Learning a language with an imperfect tool

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Learning a language with an imperfect tool

What if you studied a language for a long time with the wrong dictionary? What if many of the words you memorized turned out to have incorrect definitions?
According to a local professor, that is the case in Korea, a nation that has always emphasized the importance of education, including learning English.
Lee Jae-ho, 69, an English professor emeritus at Sungkyunkwan University, has been collecting errors he discovered in English-Korean dictionaries for the past 35 years, and recently published a book about his findings, “Yeonghan Sajeon Bipan” (A Criticism of English-Korean Dictionaries). The problems Mr. Lee has found are numerous, and, he adds, “I was often shocked by the significance of the errors.”
In his book, Mr. Lee says one problem is that the dictionaries often do not contain modern terms.
“Among seven popular dictionaries in the country, three of them don’t even have the word ‘tsunami,’” he says. “Also, many of them do not have ‘Kolkata,’ the current name for ‘Calcutta,’ and ‘Mumbai,’ the current name for ‘Bombay.’”
Another big problem the professor points out is incorrect definitions.
“For example, some dictionaries say that Arabic means a language used in Arabia, instead of the Middle East. Arabia is an ancient area and its meaning is not clear to people anymore,” Mr. Lee says.
An even more serious issue is that the dictionaries often do not use Korean words to explain the English terms.
For example, the term for chain smoker is “golcho” in Korean. But many dictionaries only explain that a chain smoker is a person who smokes constantly, and don’t mention that “golcho” is the corresponding Korean word. Consequently, many translators or students who want to translate English articles into Korean have to rely on their own knowledge, rather than the dictionaries.
In addition, the dictionaries fail to use current Korean expressions in defining English words, Mr. Lee says.
“‘Volunteer’ is best translated as ‘jawonbongsaja’ these days, but in our dictionaries ‘jiwonja’ (applicant) is found as a corresponding word,” he notes.
“‘Recycling’ is best translated as ‘jaehwalyong,’ but only one dictionary out of seven has the word,” says Mr. Lee. “Instead, it’s translated as ‘jaesunhwan’ (recirculation) and ‘jaeiyoung’ (reuse), which are relatively farther away from the meaning of “recycling.”
In other cases, foreign, rather than Korean, terms are used to define English words.
For example, “teacher” is explained as “seonsaeng,” which is originally a Chinese word. “Seuseung,” which is the pure Korean word for “teacher,” is not to be found in these dictionaries.
“‘Mating’ is translated as ‘gyobae,’ but it’s actually a Chinese word. ‘Jjakjitgi’ is the Korean term. Again, the dictionaries don’t have it,” says Mr. Lee.
Chinese vocabulary is very important in the Korean language, but in many cases English terms are explained using only Chinese words, rather than Korean terms.
The major reason why so many words are missing from the dictionaries is perhaps even more surprising. According to Mr. Lee, these dictionaries were not originally written by Korean scholars, but are simply translated versions of English-Japanese dictionaries.
“After the Japanese rule ended in Korea, the urgent need for education made people seek the quickest way to produce dictionaries,” Mr. Lee says. “They translated English-Japanese dictionaries into English-Korean ones instead of making them on their own.”
He adds, “Even our first Korean dictionaries were created by the Japanese government during its rule in Korea.”
The professor contends that the nation hasn’t made any effort to improve the situation, either.
“The role of English-Korean dictionaries is very important because people use them more than any other dictionaries. People are learning Korean as well as English through the dictionaries. But their quality is so poor,” he says.
“I think the reason has been economic. But another reason is the lack of the nation’s consciousness,” Mr. Lee says. “That is why the rich Korean vocabulary has been fading from people’s memories. We tend to remember words that we always use and always see. Since our English dictionaries lack so many useful Korean words, the number of ‘currently-in-use’ Korean words is declining, in the translation of literature and in our daily lives.”
The professor says his main point in publishing the book was not just to preserve Korean words. “I think Chinese words are the backbone of the Korean language. However, dictionaries using only Chinese words or Japanese words are destroying the Korean language.”
Mr. Lee also cited problems with Korean-English dictionaries in the country. In particular, there has been confusion in the romanization of Korean words.
“In terms of romanizing Korean words, the dictionaries have not been consistent. Some dictionaries say ‘kimchi,’ while others say ‘gimchi,’ ‘kimchee,’ and even ‘kim chee,’” he says.
“Also, ‘taegwondo,’ one of the most well-known Korean words, is spelled four ways, as ‘tae gwon do,’ ‘taegwondo,’ ‘tae kwon do’ and ‘taekwondo.’”
“There has been no solid standard in spelling Korean words in Korean-English dictionaries,” he says. “Without standardized spelling rules, how can Korean culture be introduced to the world? International audiences won’t remember a Korean word since it has been spelled in several ways. It has been a big barrier in introducing our culture.”
A mistake the country made during the 2002 World Cup, Mr. Lee says, was in spelling the nation “Corea,” which created confusion internationally. “Our country’s official name is ‘Korea.’ But people somehow changed the spelling to ‘Corea.’ Some foreigners who didn’t know about Korea must have wondered whether it was the same country.”
The professor asserts that the country needs a “real” dictionary in order to become a strong nation.
“The government should stop talking about the importance of ‘cultural’ power and actually start sponsoring the publication of quality dictionaries with sufficient financial support,” he says. “The investment would benefit the country in the long run.”
Suh Chang-yul, head of the foreign dictionaries division of a domestic publishing company, largely agrees with Mr. Lee.
“There has been almost no criticism of dictionaries,” Mr. Suh says. “I hope his book promotes active criticism and evaluation of dictionaries, so that the publishers of dictionaries become more alert and diligent.”
But he also defends the publishing industry to an extent.
“Mr. Lee’s book says that there are many useful Korean words missing in defining English words. But publishers have to worry about making the dictionaries compact and simple,” Mr. Suh says. “To carry a great amount of information in a limited space, we try to omit certain synonyms. Chinese words are more efficient to use in that sense.”
Mr. Suh admits, however, that “quality control” for dictionaries is a challenge for several reasons.
“There aren’t many dictionary experts in Korea. Most of the existing dictionary makers are old. For young people, the field of dictionaries isn’t attractive, mostly for economic reasons,” he says. “Also, the market for English-Korean dictionaries is a lot smaller than for standard English dictionaries, limiting the scale of investment.”
While Mr. Lee and some publishers acknowledge the problems, many users of the dictionaries appear to have learned to deal with them.
Baek Yeong-mi, a translator who has translated the entire “Sherlock Holmes” series into Korean, says she often finds the contents of the dictionaries to be old-fashioned, but has not had time for criticism. “Whenever I was not satisfied with my dictionary, I got help from the Internet or other sources,” she says.
This may be an indication of why so many questions like “What do you call this in English, I couldn’t find the word in my dictionary,” appear on online bulletin boards. Since people have been unable to depend on dictionaries on many occasions, they turn to the Internet for help.
Yang Seon-ah, a translator of “The Da Vinci Code,” said she never thought about the quality of the dictionaries.
“As a translator, I never blamed the dictionary. Whenever I found some words in my dictionary unusable for my translation, I chose to use my own words. I’ve always thought that was what translators do,” says Ms. Yang.
“English words multiply rapidly, but dictionaries cannot be revised every day. I think missing words are natural in dictionaries,” she adds.

by Choi Sun-young
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